It's true. Old Youssef tumbled out of the seventh floor with a notice from the tax service in his hands. Hats off for not letting go of the letter on the way down.
I can still see this other guy, a French guy totally consumed with booze, crushed under the weight of his failure. He lived in the next stairwell with his wife, who was as habitually inebriated as he was. She left him for someone else, and he jumped out of the window. Except this guy lived on the first floor . . . he broke every bone, stayed there, on his back, with an arm tucked somewhere behind his neck, one leg next to his waist, an elbow stuck in his ribs. When they got to him, the medics looked at the broken puppet and had no idea where to start. They put an emergency blanket over him, in shiny gold paper. He died shining, that sucker.
Another one comes back to me, that made us laugh, my friends and me, as much as it grossed us out: Leila, an obese woman who never left her apartment, jumped from the sixth floor. Her body went
and exploded on the pavement like an overripe tomato. Another love story gone wrong: her man had started carrying on with another woman, in their apartment. Her man who was found partially decomposed, in
his bed, the following summer; he'd had terminal cancer and his new girlfriend was gone on vacation. She had the two-bedroom cleaned and still lives there today.
I had bad luck, really, when I think about it: I, who was always out, I, who barely ever ate at home, I was there every time a neighbor committed suicide. Every time, I cleared out fast. The cops were there just as fast to conduct their investigation. Even when I didn't know if they were looking for me, I knew I was better off avoiding them.
They were looking for me for the murder at ChÃ¢telet. There were surveillance cameras on the Place CarrÃ©, and so the whole thing had been caught on camera, except the quality wasn't the best and made it impossible to identify the murderer. A big black guy, in a coat and tennis shoes, what could be more generic? They recognized me. They knew me pretty well. Each time they caught me, they kept me as long as legally possible before promising that we'd meet again.
We did meet again during a routine ID check, one morning in a suburban train station where I'd just woken up. I almost never set foot in school anymore, and barely at home: I spent my nights in the RER, the train system, like the other kids from the burbs that I hung out with after dark. We messed around until early morning, when the trains started back up, around five or six o'clock. Then we'd go down to the platforms, settle into a train car, and sleep for a few hours. I'd open an eye from time to time and see a guy in a cheap suit and tie, his little briefcase held safely on his lap like he should have it attached to his wrist with handcuffs. Our eyes would
meet, and I don't know who was more disgusted. I thought to myself,
Go on, go to work, keep getting up at the crack of dawn to go earn your pathetic salary. I haven't even gone to bed yet.
I'd go back to sleep, the imprint of the seat fabric on my cheek. I must have stunk, but everything stinks in Paris. A voice over the intercom:
“Last stop, Saint-RÃ©my-lÃ¨s-Chevreuse. All passengers are kindly asked to disembark.”
A voice in my ear.
“Abdel, Abdel, shit, Abdel, wake up! We gotta get off the train. It's gonna leave for the depot!”
“Let me sleep . . .”
Another voice, harsher, its owner shaking me by the arm.
“ID check. Let me see your papers!”
I finally sat up, and yawned as widely as possible. I thought of checking the time on my watch, but changed my mind just in time. The civil slave in uniform knew I wasn't there for my First Communion.
“I'll have a croissant with my coffee . . .”
“You've got a sense of humor this early, how nice!”
BlasÃ©, I hand over my papers, all in order, of course. Born in Algiers, I had a resident permit that had just been renewed. I'd even started the naturalization process: in the eighties, anyone residing in France for at least ten years could get a red, white, and blue passport. I didn't hesitate. My brother, the idiot, wasn't as proactive with the paperwork: he was sent back to Algeria in 1986. Belkacem and Amina lost a son, probably the one they would have preferred to keep, if they'd
had to choose. The other one, they'd have to go pick up at the police station.
“Sellou, CSI wants to talk to you, we're taking you in.”
“CSI? What's CSI?”
“Don't play dumb. Crime Scene Investigation, you know exactly what it is.”
I knew right away that it was about the murder at ChÃ¢telet. The only thing serious enough to require a trip to Ile de la CitÃ©. I knew I wasn't in trouble: I was a witness, that was it, and I didn't know the killer. For once I didn't have to lie. No need to be clever: no one was accusing me of anything. I could tell the exact truth. There was a fight, a stabbing, the guy dropped dead on the ground, the end.
But the beginning of my judicial career.
I've just turned sixteen. A few days ago, I went before a disci
plinary council at high school to end my career as a mechanic. I'm accused of skipping class and, incidentally, of delivering a right hook to the management professor.
“Abdel Yamine Sellou, you attacked Mr. PÃ©ruchon last April 23. Do you admit to it?”
Wow, it's a real hearing . . .
“I admit it, I admit it . . .”
“Well, that's a good start! Can you assure us that you won't do it again?”
“Well that depends on him!”
“No, it depends on you. Can you promise that that was the last time?”
“No, I can't.”
A general sigh of resignation from the headmaster. The other jurors don't even raise their eyes from their crosswords. My insolence is just another part of their boring routine.
They've already seen just about everything. I wonder what it'd take to surprise them. I try humor.
“Mr. Director, you're not going to kick me out, are you?”
“Is your professional future suddenly so important to you, Abdel Yamine?”
“Well I mean . . . I'm asking because of the cafeteria. Thursday's when they usually serve fries. I like to come for lunch on Thursdays.”
Nobody reacts. Not even the fattest one, the head educational counselor who never gave me the slightest bit of counsel.
Hello! I'm talking about French fries here!
I imagine he's a cartoon character, transformed into an obese wolf, his tongue drooping to the floor, drool running down onto his fat hairy belly, he can't even get himself over to the plate of crispy fries that Little Red Abdel is holding in his hands.
The director cuts off my daydreaming.
“I'm sorry, I'm afraid your culinary argument won't suffice . . . We're going to confer about it, but I believe the issue is fairly cut and dry. You'll be receiving a letter at home in a few days. You may go now.”
“Okay, well, see you later!”
“No, I don't think so . . . good luck, Abdel Yamine.”
The letter hasn't come to my parents yet, and I didn't warn them. I avoid them completely. I've been free from the school system and my family for a while now. But in the eyes of the law, I can't be questioned without the presence of a legal guardian. A squad car goes to pick up Belkacem and Amina and brings them to 36 Quai des OrfÃ¨vres, to the criminal investigation
headquarters. They come into the hallway where I'm dozing, spread out over a chair. They look impressed and defeated at the same time. My mother throws herself on me.
“Abdel, what did you do?”
“Don't worry. Everything'll be fine.”
My getting kicked out of school won't matter to them. Anyway, they know I barely ever go anymore (except for the cafeteria, of course) and they haven't had any kind of control over me for a long time. But they're afraid of the hearing they've been called to attend. The first time they came to pick me up at the local precinct, it was already too late to change me. This was proof, us here in front of the cops who handle criminals. What they had feared for me for so long, in silence, with the reserve of those who are helpless, might actually be happening.
“Abdel Yamine Sellou, you were identified by surveillance cameras on the Place CarrÃ©, in the fourth basement level of the Forum des Halles. A murder was committed on the night of blahblahblah . . .”
I'm already asleep. My parents are staring at the inspector's lips to understand what he's saying better. The word
has an explosive effect on my mother.
“Don't worry, Mom, it isn't me, I didn't do anything! I was just there at the wrong time!”
The officer confirms it.
“Mrs. Sellou, I'm questioning your son as a witness. He isn't accused of murder, do you understand?”
She nods and scoots back in her chair, reassured. I have and will never have any idea what's going through her head, hers or my father's. They don't talk. They won't talk much when
we leave the infamous 36 Quai des OrfÃ¨vres together. My father will have barely launched into a sermon when we get to Beaugrenelle. My mother will tell him to be quiet out of fear that I'll take off as soon as he does.
For now, I give my version of the story to the inspector: the guys from Les Halles, I'd never seen them before, I don't know their names, I wouldn't be able to identify them. They still don't end the interrogation. They ask me questions about myself, my life, my routine, my friends from ChÃ¢telet who aren't really my friends. He gives me his lecture, for the sake of formality. Either he's paid for that, or it eases his conscience. I guess it must make you crazy to be that bad at what you do . . .
“Abdel Yamine, your parents have small incomes and you get a government subsidy to go to school but you never go to class. Do you think that's normal?”
“Uhhhhh . . .”
“On top of that, the money goes directly into an account in your name. It could at least help your parents dress you and keep you fed.”
“Uhhhhh . . .”
“Oh sure, you do just fine on your own, right? You act like the little cock of the walk . . . Listen, I'm going to introduce you to a woman, a judge for minors, she's going to handle you until you're legal.”
My parents don't react. They have no idea what's going on, but they already understand that nobody's taking their son away. They know I'm not going to get put in a juvenile detention center. They know that I'll get called in to the Palais de Justice every three weeks and that it'll change nothing, absolutely nothing, for me or for them. Youssef, Mohamed, Yacine, Ryan,
Nassim, Mouloud, like practically all of the kids from Beaugrenelle, are monitored by a juvenile judge. Everybody from the project knows how it goes. My parents must think it's just what happens to all of us, whether we are the kids of immigrants or the French.